Mushroom Power

By Kirsten Allen

oceanblue1It seems as though Corvallis just keeps rolling out environmentally conscious organizations bent on altering people’s perspectives and bringing awareness to our impact on good ol’ Mother Earth. Ocean Blue Project, a company started by two local residents, has joined the cause with its borrowed strategy of “mycelium mediation” in order to clean up streams and restore aquatic habitats. You may be asking yourself, “How do mushrooms mediate?” We’ll get to that in a moment, but before you get excited, there are no mushroom lawyers involved.

Ocean Blue Project was started by Richard Aterbury, an engineer from Texas, and Rosalie Bienek, an OSU graduate and biology teacher at LBCC. The two shared a concern about the harmful effects of contaminated and unsanitary water on both human health and wildlife habitat. Today the team has garnered out-of-state support, too, for its potential solutions to water pollution.

Though OBP has many goals both short and long term, the restoration and cleaning of local streams and rivers has taken the lead. Its methods are experimental, including the use of mycelium in stream banks. Both Aterbury and Bienek had heard of the concept, and were excited to implement it locally. Their mycelium project is one facet of a completely organic and synergistic process that if successful will have multiple benefits.

“My core mediation can help with weed control. As we tear down weeds we mulch with wood chips. Mulching does two important things for habitat: controlling invasive plants and providing food for the fungi. Wood chips prevent weed seeds from establishing by blocking the soil. They also prevent existing weed roots from popping up again, one of the big challenges in controlling weeds. The wood chips will protect and feed the fungi we introduce at our sites,” Bienek says.

You may be wondering how exactly this whole process works, and Bienek is happy to tell us:
“We purchased oyster mushroom spawn from local growers, and have been growing it in a coffee and sawdust mix. When we put mycelium in the streams we make bunker spawn. Bunker spawn is made from burlap bags filled with wood chips and then inoculated with spawn [from coffee mix],” she continues. “We secure our bags with bamboo sticks. We use oyster mushrooms which have been shown to reduce E. coli and other coliform bacteria levels and break down petroleum hydrocarbons.”

Bienek will be testing their ability to remove heavy metal pollutants, such as mercury, from soil and water. Recent studies have shown a species known as Stropharia, or “the Garden Giant” is more effective for removing E. coli, so plans are underway to add the strain into the mix.

“The study shows that mycelium remove more E. coli from slow-moving water as opposed to fast-moving water. This is an important aspect we want to focus on, because ideally these fungi and plants can treat water contaminates but we just don’t give them enough time to do it! A big part of the challenge in my mind is to slow down water flow enough so that the fungi can filter the water properly. This would take a big change in our old infrastructure and the financial costs pose a challenge for urban residents,” says Bienik.

Although it might pose a financial and infrastructure challenge, it may be something community members start to think about. Perhaps it is time we start working with nature rather than against it.

According to Bienik, “By slowing down weed invasion we give our native plants we put at the site a competitive edge on them—this is all part of our integrated pest management program. We don’t have to use pesticides to get rid of weeds, we use multiple approaches depending on the situation. Every situation is a little different and we expect that—that’s nature! This is why an understanding of ecology is important. When we understand how living things interact with each other and the environment, we can work with the natural ecosystem to solve problems.”

Planting the mycelium bags has been successful; however, determining its effectiveness will take time. Not only is the mycelium expected to reduce toxic substances in the water, but Aterbury hopes to one day extract metals such as copper from the mycelium, and use it in devices such as computer chips and phone batteries.

Ocean Blue Projects plans to host community workshops to provide education about the dangers of unchecked industrial and agricultural runoff into what is essentially our drinking water, and the benefits associated with alternative methods of pesticide control and fertilization. Bienek plans to involve her biology class in stream education, and also conduct youth workshops on everything from litter in the Willamette River to pesticides and metals in our water.

Many members of the community are beginning to get on board with stream cleanups, and there is plenty of room for others to hop on. To learn more, visit Ocean Blue Project’s website at www.oceanblueproject.org.

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